Dr. Steven A. Leibo
Professor of International History & Politics
The Sage Colleges
Audio for Northeast Public Radio Commentary “The Irony of China’s Return”
That the Nobel Prize Committee awarded its annual peace award to Liu Xiaobo should hardly have been a surprise! After all, the Peace Prize committee has long prided itself on making aspirational gestures rather than merely certifying past successes. Not awarding its imprimatur on accomplishments often decades in the past – scientific or literary works vetted long enough to stand the test of time.But as an additional tool to strengthen voices dedicated to improving the future.
Yes, a long string of awards for leaders from Israel & Palestine to South Koreans who sought peace with their northern neighbor. Or, to Barack Obama for his, as yet unfulfilled, promise to work towards reconciling America with the world community it has so often been estranged from.
Or, on a more geo-physical level, awards for men like Al Gore and the scientists who make up the inter-governmental panel on climate change for their decades spent trying to bring the warnings of the world scientific community to a planet still too indifferent to the existential threat of man made climate change.
And, of course, within various nations, the on-going struggle to enhance social justice, from Martin Luther King’s 1964 prize to the famous Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi for her thus far futile efforts to free her beloved people from the oppressive military dictatorship that runs Myanmar.
No, there was absolutely nothing surprising about the Nobel Committee awarding the prize to Liu Xiaobao, one of the many Chinese who have dedicated their lives to pushing China toward a future less controlled by the single party domination of the Chinese Communist Party.
No, that the Nobel Prize committee chose to honor a Chinese dissident was hardly surprising at all. What was surprising was how poorly the Chinese government handled this absolutely predictable embarrassment. A reaction that should give everyone interested in a smooth transition for China into a leadership position in the world community pause to rethink just how smooth this effort is going to be.
After all, what the world desperately needs is a sophisticated Chinese government capable of showing a mature and thoughtful leadership path toward the future. In fact, precisely the sort they have shown lately as they have planned for a global future less dependent on fossil fuels. A future where the decline of petroleum and the growing threat caused by humanities largely unintended thickening of the planet’s warming green house gases will make the future especially challenging.
But, what did we get when Beijing learned of the unwelcome news that Mr. Liu had won the Peace Prize? An unsophisticated lashing out that sounded more like an angry teenager than the government of an emerging world leader.
What should they have done? Well they could certainly have protested that the award was from their perspective perhaps inappropriate, released his wife to pick up the prize and then changed the subject. Basically, doing everything they could to bury the topic, not inflame it.
But what did Beijing do? They denounced the prize and the Nobel Committee in a fashion guaranteed merely to expand the level of embarrassment. Then “brilliantly” made up another peace prize, the “Confucian Prize” and awarded it inexplicably, to a Taiwanese politician. Not only embarrassing themselves by continuing the controversy but putting into the hands of one of Taiwan’s leaders, a community so often at odds with Beijing the power to embarrass Beijing even further. Which is, of course exactly what happened when the surprised recipient neither showed up in Beijing to pick up the award nor showed any interest what so ever in accepting it.
All signs that China, while quite obviously in the process of returning to the world stage, heir to one of the oldest continuous civilizations on the planet is still acting without the sophistication one might have expected given its long cultural tradition.
All the while reminding the rest of us how complicated the next few decades may very well be as the world readjusts to a powerful China, still perhaps learning how to feel its way in this newly emerging world order.